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Virginia Senate loosens student group exclusivity rules

The Virginia Senate passed House Bill 1617 Monday, allowing student organizations at Virginia colleges to restrict membership to students perceived as “committed to [the organization’s] mission”. The legislation also bars schools from discriminating against groups which enact such policies.

The bill passed 21-18 along largely partisan lines.

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, who voted against the bill, said the measure represents a move toward accepting forms of discrimination against minority groups by allowing organizations to exclude certain individuals.

“Here’s the problem: in a democratic republic, a lot of the rules exist to protect the minority,” Deeds said. “And this bill basically says ‘it’s alright to discriminate against the minority, however that may be.’”

Even though he opposes the legislation, Deeds said he does not foresee any immediate increase in college discrimination.

“Just because the General Assembly says that it is okay to discriminate, it doesn’t make it okay,” he said. “You still have to trust people to use basic human judgment.”

The Republican effort, led by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shanendoah, was introduced at the beginning of the legislative session and passed the House at the end of January.

Center for Politics spokesperson Geoffrey Skelley said the bill may have been part of a Republican effort to fuel party supporters. “[It] strengthen[s] student groups that may be ideologically aligned in certain ways with the GOP, economically, religiously or socially,” Skelley said.

A court case in California likely prompted legislators to draft the bill when a court ruled that a public law school in the state could force a student religious organization on campus to accept all students, said Douglas Laycock, University Law and Religious Studies professor.

“This bill protects First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, free exercise of religion and freedom of association,” Laycock said in an email. “You can’t organize or maintain a group committed to a cause unless you can limit membership to those who share that commitment. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that government cannot force political or ideological organizations to accept unwanted members.”

Laycock said the bill would ensure that a case similar to the one in California would not happen in Virginia.

Republican legislators could not be reached for comment.